Who gets more love? A congressman’s girlfriend or 1,270 voters? Here’s a clue from Congressman Bill Shuster who represents Pennsylvania’s carefully designed 9th Congressional District:
TransitLabs: Governments spend billions on transportation and infrastructure.
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In May 2015, TransitLabs published Report: 98% of Congressional Districts have Deficient Bridges. They wanted a compelling graphic for the report’s front cover, and they found a great example:
Why would Mr. Shuster emphasize his lobbyist’s girlfriend’s interests over his constituents’? In 2014, Mr. Shuster avoided a Primary Election runoff because he received 24,106 votes: 1,270 more than 50% of the total. His PA-09 district has a voting-age population of 559,246, so his powerful Chairmanship was briefly hostage to fewer than 1/4 of 1% of potential voters.
The Politico article reprinted below is about a transportation bill to serve airlines’ goal to advertise prices like hotels, without including the annoying details of taxes and fees. It’s unlikely this is a burning question for many of Congressman Shuster’s rural constituents, but structurally deficient farm-to-market bridges might be. At the time, however, Shuster was dating Shelley Rubino, not his constituents.
Q. How many voters would it take to motivate Congressman Shuster to move as quickly on an issue they care about, like the 584 structurally deficient bridges in his district? The 1,270 voters who would have forced him into a runoff last fall? As the Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, his voters might expect a little brotherly love, as might all of Pennsylvania, which has the worst bridges in the nation, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal.
The Good News
It’s good news if you think Congress can’t get things done, but bad news when you realize they won’t get things done for their voters. Mr. Shuster showed everybody how an energetic committee chair can get a law through Congress in 4 months when the motivation is strong enough, whether or not his constituents’ interests are served.
“New questions emerge about the transportation chairman’s advocacy on behalf of the airline industry.”
Last year, Rep. Bill Shuster approached fellow Republican Rep. Tom Graves with a request. The powerful Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman wanted to take over Graves’ moribund Travel Transparency Act, an industry-friendly bill that would allow airlines to advertise the base price of a ticket without including fees and taxes.
The bill had gone nowhere under Graves (R-Ga.) — it didn’t even muster a hearing in committee. Once the Pennsylvania congressman took over, though, it moved at lightning speed: He introduced a revised version of the bill in March of last year, the same day he met with an airline industry group that supported it. A month later, Shuster shepherded the measure through his transportation panel in roughly 10 minutes. It sailed through the full House three months later without a roll call vote.
The legislation wasn’t only a priority for Shuster: It was a top issue for Airlines for America, and for Shuster’s girlfriend, Shelley Rubino, the organization’s vice president and a top airline lobbyist. Shuster’s panel oversees the airline industry, and Rubino’s group spends millions of dollars lobbying Congress on behalf of major U.S. airlines. Rubino herself lobbied for the legislation, according to disclosure forms.
Shuster’s relationship with Rubino was disclosed last week by POLITICO, but at the time the legislation was going through the House, it was being kept secret. His relationship with her — and his dealings with her employer — have raised new questions about Shuster’s advocacy on behalf of the airline industry. The ties go beyond Shuster and Rubino: The wife of Shuster’s chief of staff is a top executive for Airlines for America, which is known as A4A. And the congressman recently hired an A4A lobbyist to run the committee’s aviation panel.
Both Shuster and Rubino moved swiftly last spring to get the revised Transparent Airfares Act of 2014 across the finish line. The industry group worked with Shuster on tweaking the bill. Shuster and A4A used nearly identical graphics to promote the legislation. And Shuster’s verbiage on the House floor was strikingly similar to A4A’s talking points.
A year later, Graves says he has no idea why his bill was ignored before Shuster took it over. “I don’t know the answer to that. I really don’t.”
“I felt like as chairman, you know, if he’d like to have his name on the front of it,” that would be fine, Graves said in an interview. “I think I was second co-sponsor.” Graves added, “I was the only one who had an interest at that time and then, I guess, some others gathered some interest.”
A4A was unsuccessful in getting the measure through the Senate, and it’s now seeking Shuster’s help again. The trade association is trying to wedge the legislation into a massive overhaul of the Federal Aviation Administration pending before the transportation panel. Shuster is crafting that bill, and Rubino’s group has a major stake in it.
Shuster said Rubino stopped lobbying him and his staff in July 2014. But prior to that, Rubino was the lead lobbyist on the Transparent Airfares Act and worked closely with Shuster, according to multiple people familiar with their relationship. She currently is permitted to lobby the other 50 lawmakers on Shuster’s committee and their staff while she openly dates the chairman.
Both Shuster and A4A say that the relationship and their joint work on the ticket-pricing legislation were not improper and didn’t cross any ethical lines.
Shuster, however, did not respond to questions about whether he should continue to oversee a massive industry for which his girlfriend lobbies.
“The chairman has a policy in place that goes above and beyond anything that is required, stating that Ms. Rubino does not lobby the chairman or his staff. There are no restrictions on whom a member of Congress can or cannot date,” Casey Contres, a spokesman for Shuster, said in a statement. Contres added that several other interest groups, unions and airline companies also supported the legislation.
Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office declined to comment on whether Shuster should recuse himself from aviation issues, whether the speaker has confidence in Shuster, or whether the Pennsylvania Republican should step down from the committee.
“I’m not going to discuss Mr. Shuster’s relationship with anyone,” Boehner said at a news conference Thursday in response to a question. “But I’m also very comfortable that the proper procedures were put in place to avoid a public professional conflict of interest.”
Mike Long, spokesman for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), said in a statement that, “it appears that Chairman Shuster has done what the House Ethics Committee would expect from any member in this situation. Beyond that, I won’t comment on a private relationship.” McCarthy oversees House chairmen.
Shuster, a Republican, and Rubino, a Democrat, are well-liked among their peers in Washington. Lawmakers — many of whom have aspects of their private lives they, too, would like to keep out of public view — have been wary of commenting publicly on Shuster’s relationship with Rubino or his close alliance with the airline industry. Several House members privately shrugged their shoulders and said the relationship is simply emblematic of how Washington works.
The Pennsylvania Republican was on the House floor this week, glad-handing members of both parties.
Privately, though, many members have described the chairman’s relationship with Rubino as unseemly and said they were surprised that committee members were being lobbied by his now-acknowledged girlfriend.
As the airfare legislation was gaining traction, Shuster’s marriage was crumbling. Rebecca Shuster filed for divorce on July 2, 2014, according to court records filed in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. The Shusters’ 27-year marriage formally ended on Dec. 11.
At the same time Rebecca Shuster was filing divorce papers, Bill Shuster filed a document with his office stating that he was dating Rubino and that she would not lobby him or his staff.
It is unclear when the relationship between Shuster and Rubino actually began. The two have long been close.
Their legislative priorities have been closely aligned, too. Indeed, Shuster, Rubino and her employer made for a remarkably unified and effective team.
On April 9, 2014, Shuster steered the bill through his committee and secured a fast-track process on the House floor. Shuster never made leadership or members of his committee aware of his relationship with Rubino, who was also pushing for the bill on behalf of A4A, according to multiple sources.
A4A launched a lobbying offensive, meeting with staff and lawmakers and distributing an informational packet noting that the bill had bipartisan backing and arguing it would end “the government’s ability to hide the ball on rising aviation taxes and fees.” Consumer groups disputed that characterization, saying in fact the bill would reverse a government rule forcing airlines to disclose the full price of tickets on the front end, rather than informing customers of hefty fees and taxes just before they’re asked to pay.
A4A also created a website last April — airfaretransparency.com — to push the bill. That website now urges lawmakers to include the legislation in the FAA reauthorization that Shuster is leading.
A4A spokeswoman Jean Medina denied Shuster and Rubino’s personal relationship influenced the group’s lobbying efforts or the bill’s success in the House.
“To suggest legislation moved through because of a personal relationship is inaccurate and inappropriate,” Medina said in a statement. She noted that the House considers a large number of bills on the suspension calendar, the accelerated process that was used to approve the airline bill.
Shuster and other lawmakers also met with A4A’s board on March 6 to discuss the group’s priorities, including the Department of Transportation’s airfare regulations, Medina said. Shuster introduced his bill that same day.
Medina added that the group has also had, “rapid bipartisan consideration” of other legislative priorities, including a cap on passenger security fees.
Still, Shuster worked so closely with the airline group on the ticket pricing bill that their talking points and graphics promoting the bill were nearly identical.
In his committee in March, and on the House floor in July, Shuster said: “For instance, right now, DOT requires an airline and travel agent to advertise a $237 plane ticket as costing $300, hiding the $63 of taxes and fees from consumers.”
In an informational handout distributed to House staffers, A4A wrote: “Today, on a typical $300 one-stop, domestic roundtrip ticket, airline customers pay a whopping $62 in federal taxes and fees, or 21 percent of the ticket price.”
Nick Calio, the group’s CEO, has also used that same rhetoric.
“Right now… 21 percent of every ticket goes to federal government in taxes and fees paid by airlines and their passengers,” Calio said in a video posted to YouTube. “So if you buy a $300 roundtrip ticket, that’s $62 that goes to the government.”
In the course of trying to pass the legislation, Shuster addressed criticism that he was attempting to solve a little-noticed problem.
“There are some folks that have complained, ‘Why are we doing this?’ because nobody is complaining about it,” Shuster said. “But if it’s hidden, consumers don’t know, so we’re making sure that consumers know what the federal government is imposing on them in these taxes and fees.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the lead Democratic co-sponsor of the legislation, said he supported the legislation because the federal rules on airline ticket pricing shroud government taxes and fees and are akin to a “real nanny state bureaucracy.” He said he was never lobbied to support this issue and had no comment on Shuster’s personal life.
When Congress was considering the bill, consumer advocates argued it would instead allow airlines to hide the true cost of tickets up front. Charles Leocha, chairman of the consumer group Travelers United, said he was stonewalled when he asked the committee to delay the hearing on the bill last year. He called the bill “a form of bait and switch advertising.”
He is now calling for Shuster to step down as head of the powerful committee.
“Having the most powerful person in the House on transportation issues going out with someone who is working for the airline industry isn’t right,” Leocha said. “This shows such an incredible lack of integrity.”
Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), a friend of Shuster and former boss to Rubino — who worked on the Hill prior to A4A — bristled at questions over the lobbyist’s relationship with Shuster. “Is falling in love appropriate?” he asked a POLITICO reporter.
Larson said he has spoken with Rubino and Shuster since their relationship was made public. Larson said he does not believe Shuster should have to recuse himself from aviation-related issues, but added the Pennsylvania Republican should consult legal counsel.
“I’ve known Shelley Rubino — she graduated from college and came to work for me when I was Senate president in the state of Connecticut,” Larson added. “She’s got more integrity in her baby finger than most people here collectively have all together.”